Snow Park NZ's uncertain fate

Tim Zimmerman

Snowboarders who have never been to New Zealand know Snow Park from Brain Farm and Travis Rice's landmark movie, "That's It, That's All."

The recent sale of a world-class freestyle-focused ski resort on New Zealand's South Island has thrown Olympic freeski and snowboard training sessions and qualifying events into flux this year.

Snow Park, located in the mountains outside of Wanaka, was sold by its longtime owners, the Lee family, to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG) for an unknown sum earlier this month. SHPG, a winter car-testing facility for major manufacturers ranging from Porsche to Ford to BMW, took possession last Friday and has been scrambling to determine a plan for the upcoming winter season. SHPG is located adjacent to Snow Park and uses similar machinery to maintain its terrain.

Tom Elworthy, SHPG's managing director, said Snow Park would not open to the public this season, and if he can't field enough interest from national teams and other parties to warrant building a terrain park and halfpipe it may not open for private use either.

"It just comes down to whether we can get enough interest to make it viable," Elworthy said. "The reason we're here is because it's had a tough time in the last few years trying to make a buck and make it work. It's not our intention, at this stage, to simply build a pipe and park and hope they come. If we can't gather enough interest in advance, we won't be opening at all this year."

Tim Zimmerman

During the filming of "TITA," the Cineflex helicopter filming Scotty Lago flew so low through this halfpipe it almost hit its rotors on the pipe walls.

Snow Park is scheduled to host men's and women's FIS World Cup slopestyle competitions in August for skiers and snowboarders. Those events kick off this year's Olympic-qualifying slate and are part of the Winter Games NZ sports festival. As of Wednesday, Winter Games logistics manager Jane Todd said it is unclear if the slopestyle site will change locations or not.

"As you can imagine there has been heavy negotiation and lots of talks going on" with Snow Park's new owners, Todd wrote in an e-mail. "We are very keen to have the event at Snow Park, and it is our preference."

If those talks break down, both slopestyle and halfpipe World Cups would take place at Cardrona Alpine Resort, Todd said. Cardrona already is slated to host ski and snowboard World Cup halfpipe events for men and women.

Snow Park had experienced tough times financially in recent years. Even before the sale, general manager Sam Lee announced through the ski area's website that Snow Park would not open to the public this winter.

Lee, whose family has owned and operated ski areas on the South Island for 33 years, said he fielded inquiries from national teams representing the U.S., Canada, Norway and Sweden to train at Snow Park during the Northern Hemisphere summer. But their interest came too late to guarantee that there would enough revenue to operate the ski area, Lee said.

"We didn't go looking for this," he said of the sale to SHPG. "It just sort of popped up and we explored it, and we feel it's the best way for the facility to move forward. Bittersweet is the way I've described it to a lot of people."

Elworthy said he's e-mailed most of the teams that inquired with Lee before the sale, but "so far [we] have only heard from one."

"Time is of the essence for this winter, and we acknowledge that with the Olympics next year, it's a big winter for training," Elworthy said. "We want to try and get people certainty about that as soon as we possibly can."

The mountains around Wanaka received two feet of snow last week. Cardrona is slated to open on June 21. If Snow Park builds a park and/or pipe, it would likely be operational by mid- to late July.

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